How to write more like my favorite authors?
August 25, 2023 7:55 PM   Subscribe

I want to be able to write more like my favorite authors (David Mitchell especially), but I don’t know what to look for as I reread, or how to translate that into my own writing. How can I more closely analyze the books I enjoy to learn what the author is doing on a technical level?

I’m already an okay enough writer with a few big projects under my belt, but I’m trying to level up and I’m not sure how. Thanks!
posted by BuddhaInABucket to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
What level are you thinking about - sentence level (i.e. linguistic style), scene level, characterization, storyboarding, plot, ...?

If it's scene level, one exercise could be to try to write an existing scene on your own without referring to the original. One where you know what happened in the scene (the plot), but you don't remember much beyond that, so you'll end up making a lot of your own decisions as you write. Then compare to the original, and ask: okay, here where I made this decision, what decision did the author make? Why might they have made it? What effect did their decision have versus mine in terms of atmosphere, reader engagement, character development, plot layout, etc?

Once you do a few of those with one author, I'd switch to another, which would hopefully make the differences in their approach versus the first one's more noticeable.
posted by trig at 9:27 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]

1) Write a few paragraphs in a parody of the style of one of your favorite authors. What's distinctive about the style? What makes it sound like them? Can you exaggerate that, accentuate that?

2) Take a couple of interesting paragraphs by one of your favorite authors, and do a kind of Mad Libs on it - i.e., can you rewrite it to be about something else, leaving all of the sentence structure the same and just changing out the words?

3) Outline the plot of a single short story by an author you admire. Write a short story that borrows its structure from the original short story. (For example, if the first short story has an argument between a married couple that is punctuated by the revelation of a terrible secret, perhaps your short story has an argument between a mother and daughter that is punctuated by the revelation of a terrible secret.)

4) Take a couple of pages by an author you admire, get some highlighters or colored pencils in a variety of different colors, and MARK IT UP. Mark up dialogue, description, narration, internal monologue: what's the balance between these?

5) Outline an entire book by an author you admire. Draw in the thematic connections and plot connections. (A plot connection might be something like a character trying to find the answer to a question that was raised in an earlier chapter. A thematic connection might be something like a fear of intimacy that comes up again in a new context.)

You might get a lot out of Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, which is full of exercises to get writers experimenting with language and thinking more carefully about style.
posted by Jeanne at 9:57 PM on August 25 [8 favorites]

6) Closely read a short story or several novel scenes, focusing on: What is the subtext? What unspoken feelings are driving the action and dialogue, and how do you know?
posted by Jeanne at 10:08 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]

One thing worth trying is simply to retype a few pages of a favourite author's book verbatim to get yourself inside their rhythms. When Hunter S. Thompson was an aspiring young writer he did this with Hemingway, as did the young Stephen Fry with PG Wodehouse.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:08 AM on August 26 [7 favorites]

Check out the book "Steering the Craft" by Ursula K Le Guin. It's a writing workbook. She takes passages that she likes from other books, breaks down specific techniques, and gives you prompts to work on your own writing.

Do that, then ID the techniques you see in Mitchell and your other favs, and implement them.
posted by entropone at 5:08 AM on August 26 [4 favorites]

Back when I wrote poetry from time to time, I sometimes took the rhymes and rhythms of a famous work and rewrote it about a different topic. For example, I took The Road Not Taken, and rewrote it as two girls in a bar. The exercise helped me uncover intricacies I'd not noticed previously.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:10 AM on August 26

retype a few pages of a favourite author's book verbatim

Or for a little variety and a technological update to this approach, transcribe the audiobook!
posted by staggernation at 7:10 AM on August 26

Check out Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. She provides some useful guidance on that very topic. I think the craft book George Saunders wrote has a similar learn-by-analysis model, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.
posted by xenization at 9:40 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]

The George Saunders book ("A Swim in a Pond in the Rain") is excellent and I'd definitely recommend it for thinking through what kinds of things you can learn from great writers even if their style and genre differs greatly from yours.
posted by Jeanne at 11:02 AM on August 26

You might find the book dissections at Writer Unboxed useful. Here's an example of one, using My Sister the Serial Killer. They stopped doing them a while ago but there are some useful ones there.
posted by rpfields at 11:26 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]

Or for a little variety and a technological update to this approach, transcribe the audiobook!

I really doubt that would work. You're trying to get inside the writer's decisions on punctuation, sentence length and so on, not to make your own guess what these may be from however the audiobook reader happens to deliver the text. Not the same thing at all.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:59 AM on August 27

Some approaches to try.
posted by tangerine at 4:19 PM on August 28

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